KIERAN SHANNON: Love of game enough to keep lucky few going on and on...

There were so many heart-stirring and heart-warming stories over the past GAA weekend, but one that really brought a smile to my face happened way off Broadway on a club pitch in County Down.

With the Mayobridge thirds locked in a tight local championship battle, Mickey Linden, at the age of 50, was unleashed from the dugout to score not just two or three but four points from play to seal a 2-11 to 1-8 win over a plucky bunch called Darragh Cross.

A couple of hours down the road in Mullingar, another wonder of the world was stripping off his tracksuit bottoms, there being no phone booths on the sidelines or just about anywhere else these days.

Tony Browne, who turned 40 yesterday, ran on to replace Ray Barry and participate in his 22nd consecutive senior hurling championship.

Barry wasn’t even born when Browne made his senior championship debut. In fact, Browne first started hurling senior for Waterford only weeks after Linden had won the first of his All-Irelands, way back in the glorious autumn of 1991.

There have been many compliments paid to Browne over the years but one we’ve yet to come across that would be as apt and as flattering as any would be to describe him as the Mickey Linden of hurling.

Linden also played inter-county until he was 40. Unlike Browne, the last decade of his career didn’t feature many big days or big stages — while the Waterford man would win either a Munster title or an All Star nomination for the eight consecutive years after turning 30, Linden would never play another championship game in Croke Park after he famously tormented Dublin in the 1994 All-Ireland final. There would be some embarrassing defeats for him and Down in his final years — an 11-points defeat to arch-rivals Armagh in an Ulster final, being on the wrong side of Antrim’s first championship win in 18 years, a first round qualifier defeat to Longford that ended the Pete McGrath era, and then getting no game time in the 2003 Ulster final replay when Tyrone destroyed them. What sustained Linden in those years is what has sustained Browne over the years too.

“I kept playing because I loved playing,” he’d tell me in an interview at his workplace in the Newry driving test centre shortly after he finally called it a day with Down. “There’s a lot of talk about burnout but if you love the game you’ll never burn out. I didn’t stick around after ’94 just to try to win a third All-Ireland. I loved winning, but I loved playing even more.”

In fact, the weeks after winning the first of his two All-Irelands, he was nearly down about it. There was no more football to play. He was playing so well and enjoying it so much that he’d nearly have risked giving back his All-Ireland for the thrill to play the game again.

The other thing about Linden that he shared with Browne was that the soft-spoken voice belied an unwavering belief that he still had something to offer his team. Down may have been off the mark in his final years but in his own mind he wasn’t. “I still had that confidence that I was going to prove I was better than the man I was marking.”

Ross Carr would go so far as to say that if Linden had been available for neighbouring Armagh in the early Noughties even when he was in his late 30s and they were in their pomp, he’d have started for them. He should have played more in his final year with Down too. “Mickey Linden,” Carr would once claim, “was better at 39 than he was at 24.”

What Linden and Browne have also shared is an exceptional discipline. Browne’s has been well documented and lauded in recent years; Linden’s, not so much. Carr, however, would watch in wonder as Linden would routinely get to bed before 10pm, hardly drink; insist upon and preparing fish and chicken for meals long before the practice became widespread in Gaelic games.

He’s obviously retained those good habits. At 45 he’d win his eighth county senior medal with Mayobridge. Then he took up athletics and was soon the fastest man in Ireland over 45 over 100m. He’d also take gold in the long jump at those All-Ireland O45 championships. Only last year he again won the Woodies Indoor Athletic Championships 60m dash in his age category.

Browne is more into fishing, but then Linden hadn’t bothered with athletics either since he was 14. When he does finally hang them up for Waterford, there could be other ways Browne finally wins his senior All-Ireland medal. And being of the same ilk as Linden, don’t be surprised either if 10 years from now that lean familiar helmeted figure is sent running on to change another game for some team down in Mount Sion.


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